Adapted from Sergio G Sanchez’s first script, 2007’s The Orphanage was a stunning psychological horror realised by A Monster Calls’ director J.A Bayona. Sanchez’s script is concise and effective with its scares, admirably restrained in their presentation for the most part before Bayona allows the film to revel in the nastiness of its darker moments. The gothic atmosphere slowly unfurls to deliver a disquieting finale that felt satisfyingly horrible when placed alongside the previous hour and a half. However, in The Secret of Marrowbone Sanchez has taken over directorial duties himself for the first time, with some varying results.
The initial premise of Marrowbone is very promising, making the questionable execution especially disappointing. It begins with four children mourning the death of their mother before deciding to hide away in their house until the eldest son Jack (George MacKay) reaches 21 and can become their legal guardian. However, the home they inhabit is seemingly not as idyllic as they believe due to a malevolent spirit that manifests itself within the house’s many antique mirrors. It sounds like standard horror fare, in fact at least five or so easy jump scares could be imagined from that premise alone, but Sanchez isn’t willing to reduce his work to that level. Something which works for and against Marrowbone in equal measure. In a few effective moments the film allows tension to build to unbearable levels, but never quite manages to nail the payoff leaving moments that are meant to be defining of the film feeling unsatisfactory and frankly a little anticlimactic. This could be due to a few reasons, but primarily it should be traced back to the film’s unbelievable lack of subtlety.
Marrowbone would work as a nasty mediation on a fractured family and the psychosis of cabin fever. But it never quite challenges its audience to consider themes such as this instead explicitly stating several pivotal plot points in the first third, a bold move for a horror film where the terror is supposed to come from the mystery. The score doesn’t help this lack of immersion either, with a near constant string backing that consists of a series of crescendos spread across a two-hour runtime. This predictably gets rather monotonous by the end, but the biggest issue comes in the effect it has upon the film’s scares. Most horrors would utilise these audio cues to signify when something truly unbearable was imminent, provoking a reaction from the audience, but in Marrowbone it’s an attempt to create a sense of inescapable terror within the house at all times. However, due to the very heavy-handed signalling of the scenes where the spirt will appear this doesn’t quite come to fruition. This may have been an attempt by Sanchez to subvert modern horror tropes, but the film doesn’t present any original challenges to the horror genre outside of this, making that a weak defence.
One area where Marrowbone doesn’t suffer is in the cast of young adults facing off against their spectral tormentor. The most notable draws for mass audiences found in Anya Taylor Joy (Split, The VVITCH) & Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things). Taylor Joy’s character Annie does have a lot more depth than the latter however, her relationship with George MacKay’s Jack forming the structure for the later parts of the film. Heaton’s performance as second eldest sibling Billy does have some strong points, his self-assurance and headstrong nature offering a counterpoint to Jack’s leadership as he challenges his role as the alpha of the family. If this relationship had been developed with a touch more nuance across the film there could have been an interesting dynamic that could potentially have been unbearably tense, however the film abandons ideas such as this in favour of a series of twists with increasingly diminishing levels of satisfaction.
Given the arduous signposting early on in the film these twists will be predicted by most viewers well before their reveal. With most coming across as fairly bland payoffs for a story with such potential. It is a shame that Sanchez’s first foray behind the camera has transpired as incomparable to his earlier works as a writer, with moments of brilliance lost among a number of poor decisions. Marrowbone could have been an unconventional gothic horror, with a celebrated cast that would have brought Sanchez into mainstream praise, but instead it merely has good intentions with poor execution.
★★(and a half)